Silences in NGO Discourses

Issa G. Shivji is one of East Africa's well-known critical scholars, researchers and professors. Much of his work has appeared in shorter essay form, as opposed to academic articles or books (although he has published several books as well). "Silences in NGO Discourses: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa" (2007) is one of those books, although it is a compilation of two essays. This book might not be readily available at your local bookshop, but fortunately is can be found online. The first essay (Silences in NGO Discourses) is available here. The second essay (Reflections on NGOs in Tanzania) is available here.

Opening quote: "…the transformation from a colonial subject society to a bourgeois society in Africa is incomplete, stunted and distorted. We have the continued domination of imperialism – reproduction of the colonial mode – in a different form, currently labelled globalisation or neoliberalism. Within this context, NGOs are neither a third sector, nor independent of the state. Rather, they are inextricably imbricated in the neoliberal offensive, which follows on the heels of the crisis of the national project. Unless there is awareness on the part of the NGOs of this fundamental moment in the struggle between imperialism and nationalism, they end up playing the role of ideological and organisational foot soldiers of imperialism…"

Assumptions: "I believe I have shown sufficiently that the 'common sense' theoretical assumption of the current period underpinning NGO roles and actions is neoliberalism in the interest of global imperialism. It is fundamentally contrary to the interests of the large majority of the people. Taking for granted the fundamentals of neoliberalism and financial capitalism, or challenging them only piecemeal on specific issues, for example debt, environment or gender discrimination, actually draws the NGOs as protagonists into the imperial project. Brian Murphy argues that many mainstream NGO leaders have internalised assumptions and ways of neo-conservatism, and are convinced that globalisation akin to neoliberalism are inevitable and irreversible." (p. 36-37)

Contextualization: "how can you make poverty history without understanding the history of poverty? We need to know how the poverty of the five billion of this world came about. Even more acutely, we need to know how the filthy wealth of the 500 multinationals or the 225 richest people was created (Peacock 2002). We need to know precisely how this great divide, this unbridgeable chasm, is maintained; how it reproduced itself, and how it is increasingly deepened and widened. We need to ask ourselves: What are the political, social, moral, ideological, economic and cultural mechanisms which produce, reinforce and make such a world not only possible, but seemingly acceptable?" (p. 37-38)

The non-political: "The political sphere is built on the sphere of production, and there is a close relationship between those who command production and those who wield power. Yet the NGO sector, which according to its own proclamations stands for change, accepts the ideological myth that it is the third sector: non-political, not-for-profit, having nothing to do with power or production. This bourgeois mythology mystifies the reality of capitalist production and power, thus contributing to its legitimisation. NGOs by accepting the myth of being non-political contribute to the process of mystification, and therefore objectively side with the status quo, contrary to their expressed stand for change." (p. 41-42)

New directions? "Just as the African people have struggled and opposed structural adjustment in the streets, African intellectuals have critically scrutinised its neoliberal underpinnings and exposed globalisation as a new form of imperialism. African NGOs must creatively appropriate these intellectual insights. They must learn from the actually existing struggles of the people before evangelising on donor-fads of the day: gender, human rights, female genital mutilation, good governance, etc. The educators must first be educated." (p. 45)

NGO business: "We activists are not in the business of brokering power where expediency and compromise rule. Our business is to resist and expose the ugly face of power. We are guided and our work is informed by deeply held human values and causes. It seems to me that consistency of principles and commitment to humanity should inform all our work, thought, activism and advocacy." (p. 59)

Self-reflection: "In 2003 the whole world was shaken to the core and basic human values were cynically challenged when the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. Millions of people all over the world demonstrated and protested in great defiance of this monstrosity – as individuals, as NGO activists, as simple decent human beings. Here in Dar es Salaam, our NGO world was shamefully silent. A small demonstration organised by the university student union attracted a few NGOs and activists. But well-known human rights NGOs and advocates were conspicuous in their absence. The umbrella NGO organisations did not so much as issue a simple statement, either on their own or in solidarity with others. How can we who espouse democratic values of freedom and self-determination explain such silence?" (p. 60)

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